Safety & Security Overseas

CDC Yellow Book 2024

Environmental Hazards & Risks

Author(s): Virginia Lehner

US citizens traveling abroad face a wide range of risks not generally prevalent in the United States. These risks include sanitation issues (e.g., non-potable water), increased risk for traffic accidents due to poor road conditions and unfamiliarity with local norms, local insectborne illness or disease vectors, injury from adventure tourism or overexposure to unfamiliar climates, and violence ranging from petty theft to terrorism.

Travelers going overseas, particularly tourists, can also face additional challenges in seeking help when they find themselves in distress. Language, culture, and local laws can be barriers, and travelers might not have an immediately accessible network of friends or family to assist them in an emergency. Local government responses to accidents or crime might not be what travelers expect; in some instances, an effective local government might not even exist to respond. Travelers should research conditions at their destination before departure to learn what risks they could likely face and make plans to mitigate those risks abroad.

Informed Travel

As indicated above, travelers should make informed decisions prior to departure, based on clear, timely, and reliable safety and security information. The Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) within the US Department of State (the organization charged with protecting US citizens abroad) provides would-be travelers with a broad range of information for every country in the world through its webpages, Travel.State.Gov and US Embassy and Consulate.

Travel Advisories & Travel to High-Risk Areas

At the broadest level, CA assigns every country a metrics-based travel advisory level ranging from 1: Exercise normal precautions to 4: Do not travel. Travelers can see travel advisories at Travel.State.Gov; accompanying country information pages describe the risks and conditions and the actions travelers should take to mitigate risks in each country. Country information pages provide extensive travel information, including details about entry and exit requirements, local laws and customs, health conditions, accessibility for travelers with disabilities and for other key groups, typical scams and other crimes, transportation safety, and other relevant topics. The Department of State also warns people not to visit certain high-risk countries or areas because of local conditions and limited ability to provide consular services in those places.

US embassies and consulates abroad also issue event-based alerts to inform US citizens of specific safety, security, or health concerns that put travelers at immediate risk (e.g., civil aviation risks, crime threats, demonstrations, health events, weather events).

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)

Advise US citizen travelers to enroll with the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). A free service, STEP allows enrollees to receive information and alerts from local US embassies or consulates about safety, security, or health conditions at their destination. STEP can also help the local embassy or consulate locate missing US citizens or contact them in an emergency (e.g., civil unrest, a family emergency, natural disasters).

Preparing Friends & Family

The Department of State advises travelers to share their itinerary with friends and family, including the names and contact information for travel agencies, planned tours, and lodging. Travelers should establish reasonable expectations for “check-in” communications with family and friends. In addition to having their own copies, travelers also should provide trusted friends and family with copies of important documents like passports, visas, health insurance cards, and credit cards in case any of these items are lost or stolen.

Medical Insurance

The US government does not provide medical insurance for US travelers overseas and will not pay costs for travelers receiving international medical care. Medicare and Medicaid do not cover these costs, nor do many private domestic health insurance plans. Thus, travelers should purchase supplemental insurance prior to travel (see Sec. 6, Ch. 1, Travel Insurance, Travel Health Insurance & Medical Evacuation Insurance). Because travel insurance policy coverages vary, travelers should carefully read the terms to make sure the policy fits their needs. Travelers might need additional insurance coverage to cover the costs of emergency medical care, medical transport back to the United States, travel and accommodation costs in the event of interrupted or delayed travel, 24-hour contact services, and treatment received overseas for any preexisting conditions, including pregnancy.

Local Laws

US citizens are subject to local laws during travel abroad. Travelers who violate those laws—even unknowingly—can face arrest, imprisonment, or deportation. In addition, some crimes are prosecutable both in the United States and in the country where the crime was committed. US citizens arrested or detained abroad should ask local law enforcement or prison officials to notify the US embassy or consulate immediately.

Faith-Based Travelers

Faith-based travel encompasses a wide range of activities (e.g., attending pilgrimages, participating in service projects, conducting missionary work, taking part in faith-based tours). Millions of faith-based travelers participate safely in some type of religious travel every year. In addition to being aware of basic country conditions that impact all travelers, US faith-based travelers should know that in some countries, conducting religious activities without proper registration, or at all, is a crime.

LGBTQ+ Travelers

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQ+) travelers face unique challenges when traveling abroad (see Sec. 2, Ch. 13, LGBTQ+ Travelers). Laws and attitudes in some countries might negatively affect safety and ease of travel for LGBTQ+ persons, and legal protections vary between countries. Many countries do not legally recognize same-sex marriage and >70 countries criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations, sometimes with severe punishment. Travelers should review the Human Rights Report for further details before travel.

Travelers with Disabilities

Each country has its own laws regarding accessibility for, or discrimination against, people with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Enforcement of accessibility and other laws relating to people with disabilities is inconsistent (see Sec. 3, Ch. 2, Travelers with Disabilities).

Travelers with Dual Nationality

Countries have different regulations for dual nationals; some do not permit dual nationality, while others infer dual nationality based on the birthplace of a traveler’s parent. US citizens should check with the embassy of any country for relevant nationality laws before travel.

Crime, Crises & Terrorism


Crime is one of the most common threats to the safety of US citizens abroad. Travelers should research crime trends and patterns at their destination using the Overseas Security Advisory Council Country Security Reports, which provide baseline security information for every country around the world. Although strategies to avoid becoming a crime victim are, for the most part, the same everywhere, travel health providers should stress the following points with international travelers:

  • Avoid accommodations on the ground floor or immediately next to the stairs, and lock all windows and doors.
  • Do not wear expensive clothing or accessories.
  • If confronted in a robbery, give up all valuables and do not resist attackers. Resistance can escalate to violence and result in injury or death.
  • Limit travel at night; travel with a companion, and vary routine travel habits.
  • Take only recommended, safe modes of local transportation.

Crime victims should contact the local authorities and the nearest US embassy, consulate, or consular agency for assistance. The Department of State can help replace stolen passports, contact family and friends, identify health care providers, explain the local criminal justice process, and connect victims of crime with available resources, including a list of local attorneys and medical providers. The Department of State does not have the legal authority to conduct a criminal investigation, prosecute crimes, or provide legal advice or counsel.


Whether traveling or living outside the United States, US citizens should prepare for potential crises. The Department of State is committed to assisting US citizens who become victims of crime, who need assistance during a crisis or a natural disaster, or who need consular services (e.g., replacing a lost or stolen passport, providing a loan to return to the United States). The Department of State also can attempt to locate missing US citizens abroad. Nevertheless, US citizens should proactively research resources available for the country or countries where they are traveling or residing, stay connected with the nearest US embassy or consulate, and create personal safety plans.


Despite being a worldwide threat and cause for concern, terrorist attacks have involved relatively few international travelers. Past attacks have included assassinations, bombings, hijackings, kidnappings, and suicide operations. Bombings are typically conducted with the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), but biological and chemical attacks remain a concern in some high-threat countries. Potential targets include business offices, clubs, hotels, houses of worship, public transportation systems, residential areas, restaurants, schools, shopping malls, high-profile sporting events, and other tourist destinations where people gather in large numbers. To reduce their chances of becoming victims of terrorism, travelers should be cautious of unexpected packages; avoid wearing clothing that identifies them as a tourist (e.g., a T-shirt bearing the US flag or the logo of a favorite US-based sports team); look out for unattended bags or packages in public places and other crowded areas; and try to blend in with the locals. These strategies incorporate the same defensive alertness and good judgment that people should use to prevent becoming victims of crime. Awareness is key, and travelers should be knowledgeable of their surroundings and adopt protective measures.

The following authors contributed to the previous version of this chapter: Uzma Javed

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